There hasn’t yet been a history book written about John Morales. There will be. The John Morales Story will be written, scripted, optioned, filmed by a culture that devours everything meaningful and turns it into “product.”
The John Morales Story is both the biography of an artist and the history of an era – a self-willed, highly-motivated man that made the era as much as the era made him. Take the first five years of his music career alone and you already have a case for enshrinement in whatever dance music hall of fame pops up next – one of the first remixers and one whose records have remained impervious to the ruthlessness of time and fashion, from “The Player” by First Choice to “I’m Caught Up” and “Make It Last Forever” by Inner Life, among the (at least 500) records he’s remixed so far.
John Morales came to life in the disco era, but he did not die there. And that’s the interesting thing, apparent now only in the filtered light of the underground but which will eventually be more broadly understood: He hasn’t stopped. There are second acts to American lives. John Morales is in the middle of his.
There are a few artists in dance music who have stayed relevant across such a long period in such a multifaceted manner – François Kevorkian and Jellybean Benitez come to mind – but only just a handful of them. John has released new house records on Quantize. Hits on Defected. Special projects remixing soul classics from Motown and others. Most lately, it’s the highly anticipated fourth volume of the M+M Mixes on BBE. And maybe most surprising of all: a DJ career, with a fully-booked schedule, which he picked up after having DJ’d fewer than a dozen times in his first 30 years.
Lead photo by Hannah Metcalf.
Quit Your Day Job Today.
“A lot of people are thinking short term,” John Morales tells me. “I’m thinking long term. How long? There’s one project I’ve been working on for probably ten years.”
He’s talking about clearances here. Licenses. Major labels that own the rights to songs he wants to mix – vast conglomerates which have their own pace and process and are big enough that they don’t particularly have to hurry up for anyone.
But more broadly, I think about the people that I know who make music, write or make art for a living and I can’t think of anyone I know with this kind of discipline, who can sit on a project for ten years and still send one more email, make one more phone call, make one more edit to see if this time it comes close to achieving his vision. It’s the kind of drawn-out process associated with film making or some other art which requires the approval of literally hundreds of people before work begins. And understand: he has a dozen or more projects like this ongoing all the time.
“You have to if you want to make a living from it,” John says. “There are a lot of examples of people who want to be in the industry but won’t make the sacrifices to get there. People have said to me, ‘I have a family, I have kids, I wish I had your opportunities!’ And I go back to – ‘Dude, I wake up at 7 or 8 in the morning and I do music all day, 24/7. It’s non-stop. And it’s been this way for over 40 years. It’s work.‘ If you can’t put that in, well you can maybe just make peace with it being a hobby. For me at least I’ve never found that I could treat music as a part-time job.
“I had a job working for the government and I thought, you know what? I can’t do this. I can’t give everything to the music when I’m still working here. I’m too tired! If it doesn’t work, I’ll see what happens then, but I’m going to give music 100%. Unless you want to apply yourself 100%, you can’t blame anybody but yourself for not being successful at it.”
Sunshine, Broadway, New York.
That decision to quit his day job is an early example of Morales making opportunities for himself. In the early days of remixing, tracks were played on reel-to-reel tapes, which were cumbersome and difficult to handle in the confines of a DJ booth, among other limitations.
Looking for a solution, Morales remembers “looking through the Yellow Pages for ‘record pressing’ or something like that. That’s how I found Sunshine.”
Sunshine Sound is another name that’s Holy Scripture among disco heads and historians but lacks the same force among the general public. Owned by Frank Trimarco, Sunshine became known as the place for mixers to get acetates cut – the legendary “Sunshine Plates.”
“What Sunshine did is it created an avenue for DJs that were trying to be more creative. They could press their edit on a master plate and get a few plays out of it,” Morales recalls. “I went over with my master and the all of a sudden… Wow! I have my own record!”
Sunshine became a place where more and more New York DJs would get their “plates” done. But it was here that John Morales found traction for his career. “Sunshine was cutting test pressings for the record companies that were in the same building. Greg Carmichael was in that building, and was getting some plates from Sunshine. Frank said to him, ‘You know, John Morales is doing these edits DJs seem to like, you should get in touch with him.’ And the next time I went in to get a plate done, Frank said to go down and talk to Greg Carmichael, he was interested in me mixing a record.
“That right there changed my life. There were other studios that were cutting acetates but for me Sunshine was everything. I would never have met Greg Carmichael or Randy Muller [of Brass Construction] or work with any of these people. I might even still be working at the post office!”
These early records were crucial in the evolution of disco, mixing – even DJing itself. Even the language that we use originates with this relatively small group of innovators, of which John is one.
“M+M Productions” (made up of John Morales and Sergio Munzibai) became a watchword for quality mixes as disco erupted out of the discotheques and into the mainstream.
But there was always something of a cult following behind him, even when disco was the biggest party in the world. For years the name “John Morales” has been something of a credibility sign among the type of people who don’t just dive into the vast pool of music and power stroke through it, but for those who lingered – the kind of weirdos who read liner notes and learn what city a record was recorded in and tried to figure out what influence that had on what they were hearing.
DJs and aficionados without access to message boards or discogs.com would wonder why two completely unrelated records sounded similar, like two books from different authors edited by the same pair of hands. The editor was John Morales.
Special Guest DJ: John Morales.
Even when he was not making music, Morales was still innovating. After a health scare and career burnout, he began testing musical software for Atari Computers (whose PCs had a built-in MIDI) and Steinberg, best known for their flagship DAW Cubase. Morales has always been like this: born in the era of big collars, big labels and big studios, he’s almost effortlessly picked up new technologies, mastered them and incorporated them into what he does.
“I played at Southport in front of about 5,000 people, and that was the seventh time I DJ’d in the previous 30 years.”
After being pulled back into the business (with some coaxing from Paul Simpson, Dimitri From Paris and other friends and admirers of his work), Morales likewise picked up DJing. “I played at Southport in front of I guess about 5,000 people – and that was actually the 7th time I DJ’d in the last 30 years,” he told me back in 2011. He claims to have done “a couple of guest spots at Club 1018 and the Limelight once or twice in the mid-’80s,” but prior to that you had to go back to his days at the Stardust Ballroom in the 1970s to find him regularly behind the decks.
Which is, more often than not, where you can find him in the 2010s. Despite spending most of those years locked in the studio, Morales is one of just a handful of artists from that era who are still active DJs on the circuit. “There’s obviously François Kevorkian, Jellybean – these guys do the same thing,” he says. “But there aren’t that many of us in terms of age. There’s Bob Jones, Bob Jeffries and a bunch of the old school Northern Soul guys, but they don’t necessarily travel on the same level. I’m everywhere, every weekend. Last week I was in London. I came home for three or four days and then I’m going to Asia. I do want to keep doing this, but at this pace? I’m not sure how long. From an age standpoint, there are very few people who are doing this and playing like I am.
“Beyond everything else it’s also an opportunity to try out records and see what’s working out there.”
M+M: Volume IV.
Among those records battle-tested and driven hard on the road are the 32 tracks of M+M Volume IV, the latest installment of a series that BBE launched and which had a lot to do with me talking to him now. The four CD set is a leviathan of soul, featuring previously unreleased mixes of tracks including Diana Ross’ “Tenderness,” Donna Summer’s “Heaven Knows,” MFSB’s “Love Is the Message” and a slew of re-funked anthems and rarities in the “John Morales style” – the signature of a master who uses intellect as much as emotion and “feel” to pull out the best elements of a song. An M+M Mix has a distinct voice, the John Morales style: drum breakdowns, drop-outs and a devotion to the talent and craft of the musicians who once filled those studios – those “great halls,” in his own words, “that echo with the sounds and memories of the great music they once created.”
“I took some long rides with the M+M Mixes Volume IV album,” he told me, “I mean that literally. I’m in Jersey. I drove to Baltimore and back with it playing. I took three hour drives so I could listen to the whole record and hear how it flowed and see if maybe we needed to change something. There was a lot of thought that went into the flow of M+M Volume IV, and I hope people can appreciate that.
“Knock on wood, most people who’ve heard it have liked it, and I guess if some don’t they haven’t said anything, so… If someone doesn’t like the mix, I’m good with that because I know I did the best I could on every single track on it.”
A project like Morales’ M+M Mixes compilations are staggeringly complex, collaborative in a way that few projects in the music industry really are anymore.
“The logistics of doing it are what they are,” he says. “Some of the tracks you can’t get cleared. You send the label the list of the tracks you want to do, they tell you what you can do, what you can’t do, what they have and what they don’t have. Then you’re tracking down the last member of a band or a manager and you wind up finding people on Facebook of all places. For one track it took me two years to get a reply. It was the last track on the project and I was just about to drop it off because I couldn’t wait anymore. And I got a reply: ‘Hey, sorry it took so long to get back to you. What’s up?’
“Five years of chasing people and doing the mixes and changing them and it’s all worth it.”
So much of this reminds me of another soul survivor famous for his self-discipline and an almost “working class” approach to carving out a career in the industry: Dan Hartman. The writer and arranger of the quintessential disco song “Relight My Fire” had, by the mid-1980s, become a relentless hustler for gigs, recording demos and creating projects at an absolutely breakneck pace.
One of the Sunshine Plates was John’s mix of Hartman’s first disco hit, “Instant Replay.” How fitting then to hear the immortal intro of “Vertigo” blend into “Relight My Fire” on CD #3 of M+M Mixes Volume IV, given the Morales treatment.
“I actually worked with Dan,” he told me. “That was on ‘I Can Dream About You.’ I mixed that in 1980-something. Dan was a great guy, and musically very ‘open.’ That’s something I always thought was really important if you want to be successful: to be open to new ideas. I brought in a couple of percussionists, a keyboard guy, and he was all into it. It was a good time, but never got a chance to really work on production with him.”
M+M is a dance album, it’s meant by design for DJs but there’s a quality to it that is hard to define. I’m probably sent a hundred albums a month these days, I might listen to ten and really enjoy three. But it’s a rare experience when I’m able to slap the headphones on and get lost – to feel an ebb and flow and drift about in an luxurious kind of manner.
Part of it is the hypnotic nature of an extended mix, but a good deal more is the John Morales style. There’s something about his work – a magic thread woven through everything he does – that makes the music enjoyable beyond any technical measurement. I don’t know if I could identify every track that John worked on by ear, but I’m pretty sure I could rule out ones he didn’t mix from the lack of magic.
“You want to be able to have something that’s your own voice,” he tells me. “Nobody can really change you because nobody can get into your head. My style is just my way of being creative. Everyone has their own thing. Sometimes there’s only so much you can do with a record. When is too much too much? When is too little too little? When is it good to go? Knowing that is part of it too.
“People ask if I can teach it, how to remix and everything else. And I say I can show you the technical part of it. I can show you – this is what you do to make the vocal sound like this, or the snare sound like this. But as far as telling you when to touch something – it’s a feel. And we all feel differently.
“It’s all in your head.”
The Soul Survivor.
The first line of The John Morales Story will mention the first five or dozen years – his role in originating the extended mix and some of the M+M disco classics. That’s a given. That’s his immortality and Morales attained it before 1985.
But to stay relevant and not lose your soul in the process: that’s the essence of what makes John Morales John Morales.
This is not that John Morales story. Just a fragment of it – notes for some footnote referenced in the real story, by some writer who might not yet have been born. It’s still going on. We’re still in the middle of it.
M+M Mixes Volume IV is out now from BBE.